‘It was a joke’: Wagner group chief says Bakhmut ceasefire was just ‘humour’

A crater left by a Russian missile strike in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on Thursday (REUTERS)
A crater left by a Russian missile strike in Mykolaiv, Ukraine on Thursday (REUTERS)

The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group said he had been joking when he offered to suspend artillery fire on Ukrainian forces in besieged Bakhmut.

Wagner has been spearheading Russia's assault on the Ukrainian city since last summer in the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, but Ukrainian forces have so far thwarted its attempts to take full control.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio message: “A decision has been taken to suspend artillery fire so that American journalists can safely film Bakhmut and go home.”

However, he later added: “Guys, this is military humour. Humour, and nothing more... It was a joke.”

At least 4,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting in Bakhmut, according to estimates from Kyiv, and thousands more soldiers from both sides.

Elsewhere, a civilian was killed and 23 others wounded – including a child – when four Russian Kalibr cruise missiles hit the southern city of Mykolaiv.

It came as Russia has installed a ‘Devil’s Teeth’ anti-tank defence barricade further along the front line head of a planned counter-offensive by Ukraine in the spring.

Anti-tank ditches near Ukraine’s occupied southeastern town of Polohy stretch for 19 miles. Behind are rows of the concrete barricades. Behind that are defensive trenches where Russia’s troops will be positioned.

The defences are visible in satellite imagery that shows Russian fortifications sweeping down from western Russia through eastern Ukraine and on to Crimea built in readiness for a major Ukrainian attack.

Nato said its allies and partner countries have now delivered more than 98% of the combat vehicles promised to Ukraine to fight Russia's invasion.

Along with more than 1,550 armoured vehicles, 230 tanks and other equipment, Ukraine's allies have sent “vast amounts of ammunition” and trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian brigades, secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said.

More than 30,000 troops are estimated to make up the new brigades. Some Nato partner countries such as Sweden and Australia have also provided armoured vehicles.

“This will put Ukraine in a strong position to continue to retake occupied territory,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

His comments came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping had a “long and meaningful” phone call in their first known contact since Russia's full-scale invasion more than a year ago.

Mr Putin on Thursday hailed burgeoning economic ties with Turkey in a virtual ceremony inaugurating Turkey's first nuclear power plant, which was built by Russia’s state nuclear energy firm, Rosatom.

Turkey is a NATO member but Erdogan has managed to maintain cordial relations with Putin despite the war in Ukraine.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.